Maybe I am a reactionary but I do get a bit fed up with some attempts to make Christianity flash (by which I mean cool and “relevant”). Of course, Christianity always has been and always will be contextualized; it is always encultured and always needs recontextualizing. So I am all in favor of that. But there are ways of allowing the divine Word to engage human culture and there are ways of obscuring the Word in our very attempts to make it known.
The Word made flash is sometimes simply kitsch. Take a look at the world of Christian gifts—T shirts, dolls, posters, etc.—and you’ll see what I mean. Evangelicals are sinners here with our utter trivialization of the divine in our material culture but so too are Catholics (who can take kitsch to new heights). I remember seeing one T-shirt with a cartoon cute brain wearing glasses in a frying pan. It looked hot and its tongue was hanging out. Underneath were the words “This is your brain in hell.” Really? Have we made Jesus’ eschatological warnings of judgment “relevant” to teenagers in this way? Will they see the T-shirt and fall on their knees in repentance?
I recall a poster set out in Coke style with the words, “Jesus Christ—he’s the real thing” . . . There’s something better than Coke! No way! Please, tell me all about it. Mercy! What must I do to be saved?
There is a church I know that engages the local community with breathtakingly corny posters that make your heart weep with their utter stupidity. Not relevant! Stupid! Crass! Trivial!
Another way of making Christianity “relevant” is to reduce the tensions between the gospel and contemporary culture so that the gospel is seen to say the same thing as everyone else. I recall reading one book on film and theology which, if I may slightly caricature its argument, proceeded as follows:
1. Theology has much to learn from film.
2. Consider Film-X. Look—it communicates some ideas that are different from what Christians have traditionally said.
3. So theologians need to change what they have traditionally said and accommodate their theology to this (revelatory?) film.
Really? But surely the film might . . . be wrong.
And, of course, once we explain to the world around us that we are not so weird—that we really believe and behave pretty much the same as them—then they will understand that they are fine to stay as they are. There is no call to conversion here; simply a call to think and speak nicely about Christians. They ain’t so bad; They’re just like us really. The problem is that we often are. This is the Word made bland. Why would anyone want to hang out with people as bland as that? The gospel call is a call to the kingdom of God—a call to embody the story of the crucified and risen Lord. We are supposed to be different (though note that “different” does not mean “weird”).
Christians are calling on each other to change all sorts of parts of their theology and practice in the name of cultural relevance. Now, I am open to such calls because Christian theology and practice are human affairs and are always open to judgment. But the judge is God and God’s gospel and not any human culture, past or present. The gospel must be a challenge to cultures—all cultures—and not submit itself to cultures for judgment. It is not simply “trendy liberals” who fall foul of seeking to submit the divine Word to culture; some of the greatest offenders are conservative traditionalists of all stripes who oh so easily imagine that their culture best embodies the Word. For an example of this consider this picture—”One Nation under God” by Jon McNaughton. This is a gnat’s whisker from idolatry.
I am not calling for all things traditional—not at all. Nor am I suggesting that the fine line between enculturation and compromise is easy to navigate. What I am saying is that we need to be ever-vigilant and ever-open to the judgment of the divine Word. We need to realize that to be relevant is not to be flash or kitsch or bland—it is to embody the story of Christ in our communities. It is to embody a divine challenge to culture and to be a vehicle through which the breath-taking and awesome God encounters people.